A Beyond Here Feature travel story.
No matter which part of the world you travel to, any shadows you are trying to escape will follow you to your next destination.
The large cosmopolitan city of Berlin where everyone seems to be on edge, is a weird and unique landscape. It has a grotesque sensuality and a wide expanse of possibilities. We knew it was possible to grow a life there and not just a dream. We had all the right elements: independence, a sense of adventure, a free-spirited attitude, some saved-up money, and this faint yet existing refusal to give up.
I had an expectation that in Berlin I could finally be the person I wanted to be. I would find the confidence I was lacking through travelling. In Berlin I would write a lot, attend readings, and find a group of writers I could share my passion with. Those days of being anxious about connecting with other people, mixed with obsessive thoughts, were behind me.
Settling into Berlin
Berlin is cheaper compared to other major cities around the world. Many artists call Berlin their home for that reason. They can live out their dreams without falling under the tedious and mind-numbing weight of working 9 to 5, M-F.
Finding a job was not difficult. Keeping it was another issue because we usually found temporary or part-time jobs. We found an apartment during our first month in Lichtenberg, in east Berlin. It was small, a one-bedroom, and dressed in naked wood and white walls. An entire wall of the living room was plastered with a wallpaper of Buddha. It was an old Soviet-era style building built in the 70’s or 80’s. The apartment was blocky, uniform, and lacked character. It didn’t have the high ceilings of Altbau apartments ubiquitous in Berlin dating from the 19th century.
Those first few months were hard. Our money was disappearing from our bank account. Since we had spent the previous three and a half months hopping around Europe we had spent most of the money we saved.
“In Berlin, if you are not sure of yourself or the reasons for your actions, you can easily lose yourself in that unforgiving city”.
The language barrier did not intimidate us because Berlin is the only city in Germany where English is a second language. You could get by without knowing German. Although we tried. The year leading up to the move we taught ourselves German through Duolingo. Essen, Trinken, Apfel, Junge, Mann, Frau. Those were the most common words we learned on the app, including basic sentences such as, Ich bin eine Frau. For grammar, Duolingo was essentially useless. So we took a A1.2 level German course during our first month in Berlin. We skipped A1.1 because it would’ve been too basic – Hallo, Danke, Auf wiedersehen.
The school was in Friedrichshain. We learned basic grammar in the class, for example, the second verb in a sentence always goes at the end. Also, Germans say numbers backwards. Instead of saying thirty-five, they say, five-and-thirty (funf und dreiẞig).
The night before our final class we stayed up to watch one of our favourite bands from Vancouver play at Urban Spree in Friedrichshain, near the East Side Gallery. We didn’t get into bed until the early hours of the morning, completely wasted. Somehow, after about two hours of sleep, I managed to get out of bed, shower, and walk to class. Chris was not going to bother. Completely dazed inside the foggy dew of my hungover brain, I was nearly falling asleep in class.
Those long wasted nights would become a staple during our time in Berlin, along with delicious late-night döners. I looked forward to those nights because they were an opportunity to form a close group of friends, the kind which I was missing in Vancouver.
When Chris and I found temporary shifts at a flower warehouse called Bloomy Days, packaging and preparing flowers, we met a lot of the people whom we would share those long nights in Berlin with. Everyone who worked there were foreigners, and only the management staff were Germans.
We spent New Year’s Eve with them in Kreuzberg. On top of a roof with no protective walls, we watched colourful fireworks crackle, sparkle, and fizzle 360 degrees around us.
The night-life party scene in Berlin is powerful and intoxicating. You can easily get lost in it and side-track your dreams as a forgotten priority, preferring to soak in the dream-like quality of Berlin at dark. Each day there is something new to discover in Berlin, and new ways to reinvent yourself.
Once, at About Blank nightclub near Ostkreuz station, we stepped into its dark underground very early on a Monday morning. The bar downstairs was lit up in a magenta glow. DJ’s we had never heard of mixed their underground techno sound. The dance floor was sparse since the night only attracted the true hardcore fans of techno (unlike us who had just decided on a whim to attend). The leftover Psilocybin we took made the grim club more eerie, and the trees outside in the courtyard vibrated and danced through grainy textures. Overflowing bathrooms from the previous weekend evenings were filled with human-made zombies. S&M figures also made an entrance – a submissive on all-fours, a leash around his neck held by his dominant dressed in minimal leather.
After a night like that it was rejuvenating to see the sun rise in the city. A pulsating yellow, streaking the horizon with yolks of light, blending with the sky’s pink afterglow.
Searching for Connections
It can be easy to make friends in Berlin because most are expats or travellers living there temporarily. Berlin is well-known for having few Berliners who were actually born and raised there. This meant that I could make little effort in establishing friendships knowing that everyone would want to get together anyways, since they were still trying to get a foothold in the city. So, I fell back into my old patterns of preferring to drink excessively in order to ease social anxieties, instead of making genuine connections, which comes with non-inebriated conversations.
It is impossible not to drink in Berlin. The beer is incredibly cheap, tastes delicious (even the cheapest six-pack we bought at Aldi which came in plastic bottles and smelled like weed), you can drink on the streets, and practically everyone is nursing a beer in their hand. It is pretty common to see locals commuting to and from work on the S- or U-bahn with a beer.
My old anxieties of not being accepted for who I am which, to be fair, was someone I didn’t even know, continued to haunt me. I tried volunteering at Tempelhof Flughafen during a time when I couldn’t find work. Tempelhof is an old airport used during WWII to house prisoners, and also where I worked as an extra for a day filming an American TV show. It is now used as a shelter for thousands of refugees. Part of the volunteer work was to collect various clothing, such as socks and coats, as well as raise money for the refugees. The first time I went my spirits were raised because I felt that there was a community here which I could be a part of.
The women working there were interesting and had various experience running volunteer programs. However, just as I had predicted would happen, I started to close myself off to everyone and the environment. The involvement became too intimidating, and a fear of not being accepted into the group settled in. In my typical fashion I stopped interacting. I didn’t speak up during meetings, provided short and kurt responses to questions, and slowly stopped attending. As I became more quiet and withdrawn, the disapprovement of my behaviour began to show with some of the outspoken volunteers who were confident in their purpose.
My unresolved insecurities and anxieties were starting to pile up.
“The confusion about my identity was and has been a huge factor in my life”.
When I got a full time job in the retail shop at Hard Rock, six months into our life in Berlin, that’s when routines became a daily occurrence. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, make lunch for the next day, watch Netflix, then go to bed. Repeat. The routines provided structure which we were lacking since leaving for Europe. However, they just reminded me of the repetitions I was enacting in life without challenging myself to grow.
As our days in Berlin were dwindling I became disillusioned by my incapability to move forward. I wanted to write and create, yet I continued to follow and duplicate old patterns, including succumbing to the pressures of life without being bold enough to make changes. I was not writing, I didn’t feel as though I was connecting to anyone, and the worst part is, I wanted to go out drinking or do drugs, just so I could feel like I was doing something.
Quitting drinking for a short while due to health reasons calmed me down but magnified the intensity of my insecurities.
You see, when I was younger I had this idea that once I escaped from Vancouver to travel and live somewhere else, everything would fit together. It was my life’s purpose and all the unknowns which I was scared of would become known to me. The confusion about my “identity” was and has been a huge factor in my life. Since moving from Bangladesh as a kid I’ve never felt like I fit in Vancouver because I was constantly reminded I didn’t belong.
It is strange that identity is so significant to me because it is such an abstract and intangible concept. I believe that the preoccupation in the west with identity stems from our obsession over difference. We cling to a creation of what we think our identity is so we have an easier time outlining how our lives differ from others, thereby feeling validated in our experience. It isn’t until someone notices your difference and threatens its livelihood do we stand up and try to reorient ourselves through identity in order to keep our history and culture intact.
One of the reasons I fell in love with travelling was because it is characteristically diverse. While exploring the world you meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. For me, travelling removes the feelings of inferiority in the eyes of a dominant white culture. Appreciation of multiculturalism is the status quo when travelling, not assimilating into white culture. In Berlin when people asked me where I was from, I felt proud to say Bangladesh with an aside that I grew up in Canada. It was the first time I used the phrase I am Bengali-Canadian. (Although, even now it sounds weird to compound those two identities).
I started to really miss my family, and realized how much of myself I was denying – my Bengali heritage. I ignored my past and history because I wanted to escape. It was in Berlin when I began to reignite this appreciation of my Bengali identity. When I spoke to my parents on the phone I tried speaking in Bengali, something which I had not attempted since I was a kid. It came back to me, although slowly and painfully. One of the reasons why I was returning to this side of myself was also because of a friend I met at Hard Rock, Roberto.
Roberto is an Italian philosopher, dreamer, spiritual-seeker, multilinguist, poet, film-maker, writer, pansexual, and lover of eastern religions and opera. We connected as soon as we met, which was a surprise to me. Roberto was more down-to-earth than I thought a Renaissance Man would be. He found me interesting because of my Bengali and Buddhist heritage. He liked me for my history and culture, something which was always looked down upon in Vancouver when I was growing up.
Steady money started coming in from my Hard Rock job, so Chris and I decided to travel again. During the travelling phase I felt comfortably situated because it was an escape from Berlin. Once I returned to Berlin however, the uselessness returned.
As our year was drawing to a close, it became very likely that my working holiday visa would not be renewed even though Hard Rock was willing to sponsor me. A part of me didn’t want to leave, yet another part of me did. It would be easier in Vancouver, I thought. I would see my parents and not feel completely detached from myself. I could also return to my library job and use the money for further travelling. In Berlin everything felt temporary. I thought I would feel comfortable with the constant movement and uncertainty which comes with long-term travelling. It’s possible that I still could, because the idea of non-permanence doesn’t scare me. What unnerved me was that I had no roots, none whatsoever within me.
Leaving Berlin was heartbreaking, and once I stepped foot into Vancouver I was distraught with the lack of improvement in the psychological disarray of my mind.
I have since learned to look at travel in a different way. No longer am I interested in travel as a future state of being where everything would be perfect and I would feel whole. Instead, travel is now something far more interesting. I could fly to a destination without feeling like I had to escape. I could focus on appreciating the culture and region I was in, including the privilege of being able to travel. I was looking at travel through a narrow-minded lens. That’s why I loaded a burden of expectations onto Berlin.
In Berlin, if you are not sure of yourself or the reasons for your actions, you can easily lose yourself in that unforgiving city. Berlin is not for the faint-hearted. It challenges you to raise your head and finish what you started, or even get started. The city has many, many distractions and lots of opportunities, and the only way to keep from turning into human-malleable putty is to realize your purpose, dreams, and potential.
It is something you don’t recognize until you leave the city where you have lived for most of your life. A new place forces you to grow up and pay attention to your potential, then figure out a way to turn that potential into reality.
Eventually, I did make some genuine connections. Although these relationships are now difficult to maintain due to the long distance.
I returned to Berlin earlier this year to see friends, and because I missed the city so much, including the memories. Maybe it was because I was only there for a short while, but I didn’t feel a slave to it. I didn’t need such travels to cure me. I could take it or leave it.
Now, more than anything, I want to live there again. Perhaps my insecurity has resurfaced, and my restlessness of a mundane life in Vancouver is urging me to escape to Berlin. Yet, now I know, until I truly understand the reasons for my desire to return to Berlin, it would be best to continue nurturing that self inside of me until it takes root.
Written by: Dipa Barua
Below you can enjoy grainy unfocused photos of our time in Berlin. (Unfortunately, we didn’t spend a lot of time taking photos while there).
Copyright © Dipa Barua 2019
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